AoR 48: Andres Cibils on Heritage Breeds, Animal Sensors, and Optimizing Livestock Production

The last few decades have brought significant technological transitions in rangeland science and animals, specifically with advances in wireless and sensor technologies and access to “big data”. Dr. Cibils answers a few key questions: How can we direct inevitable change in desirable ways? Through these transitions, which can sometimes be disruptive economically or socially, how can we sustain the flow of rangeland products to consumers and improve environmental conditions in order to maintain or increase the well-being of those who live, work, and recreate on rangelands? Dr. Cibils and Tip discuss using technology to reduce ranch operational costs, GPS-enabled animal trackers that provide real-time location data, renewed interest in heritage breeds such as Criollo and Raramuri, and more. 


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>> [Background Music] Welcome to "The Art of Range" a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, Range and Livestock Specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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My guest today is Andres Cibils, a researcher and professor of rangeland ecology at New Mexico State University. This may be slightly embarrassing for him but, by a way of introduction, I'm going to read from the text of a recent award because the award summary's quite good. And then I'll let him talk. Dr. Cibils was honored this year, 2020, with the Society for Range Management's Outstanding Achievement Award. I'm quoting now, "During his tenure of 16 years at New Mexico State University, Dr. Cibils has established research exploring the application of ecological theory to improve rangeland-based livestock production systems, livestock-ecosystem interactions, use of telemetry, geographic information system mapping, and remote sensing tools to understand grazing patterns of livestock on large rangeland landscapes at various spatiotemporal scales to inform adaptive grazing management decisions on arid lands. Another focus of his research involves studying the role of livestock in supporting livelihoods of smallholder agro-pastoralists in West Africa and New Mexico. He's built an impressive institution within his laboratory and sets an example for productivity, instruction, and acknowledgement. Andrés is well known for developing unique research tools and models for preserving rangelands and investigating livestock breeds that may be better adapted to harsh environments, many methodologies of which have been adopted for use by agencies and producers. Andres, welcome to the show.

>> Thank you, Tip. I, after that introduction, it's going to be hard not to disappoint your audience, but thank you so much.

>> [Laughter] Well, first, we don't know each other that well and I'm not certain that I'm pronouncing your name accurately. I'm saying Andres Cibils.

>> That's perfect. That's, that's fine. I am, I am an immigrant from Argentina and that's the reason for the unusual name.

>> I know one other person from Argentina personally and she says, "Buenos Aires" in a way that sounds legitimate. Am I close?

>> That is very close, yes.

>> Okay. Looking at your resume, you went back to Argentina for awhile after getting your PhD at Colorado State. What was your pathway to being a rangelands and technology researcher at New Mexico State?

>> Yes, I actually started out as a county extension specialist working with sheep ranchers in Patagonia and Southern Argentina. Then, had the opportunity to come to Colorado State and then return to Patagonia to work again with sheep ranchers, but as a research scientist eventually had the opportunity to come to the University of Arizona to do a post-doc studying foraging behavior of cattle. And while at Arizona State, I applied for a permanent position at New Mexico State in the department of animal and range sciences. That's where I've been for the last 17 years or so.

>> Personally, why were you interested in rangelands and livestock?

>> My undergraduate degree was in animal science and, as soon as I got out of college, I got the opportunity to go work as an apprentice on a very large sheep ranch in Patagonia. And understood pretty quickly that how one managed a rangeland had all of the impact on lamb and wool production. And that, unless you understood something about the ecology of rangelands, it was very difficult to run a successful livestock enterprise in these sorts of environments.

>> Yeah, there's a quote from Baxter Black that I think I've mentioned once before in the podcast, but for some reason, it's stuck with me. He said one time that there's nothing that comes out of the end of a balling gun or a hypodermic needle that can compensate for subpar animal husbandry. And I don't know whether he meant it this way, but you know, certainly we would include in that that adapting animals to land and imagining land in a way that's healthy is absolutely tied to good animal husbandry.

>> I couldn't agree more.

>> Well, I wanted to come back to some of what you said at the Society of Range Management symposium you spoke at back in February in Denver. In the introduction to that symposium, the program said that we have witnessed significant technological transitions in rangeland science and animals, specifically with advances in wireless and sensor technologies and access to big data. In the symposium, you were one of a few people answering the question, how can we direct change that is inevitable in ways that are desirable. And through these transitions, which can sometimes be, these are my words, disruptive economically or socially, how can we sustain the flow of rangeland products to consumers and improve environmental conditions to maintain or increase the wellbeing of those who live, work, and recreate on rangelands? So, I wanted to come back and give you an opportunity to talk just a bit about some of what you've done on those topics.

>> Yes, thank you. One of the possible avenues to do what you just described that we are investigating is to see whether by using sensor technology and adequate network systems, we can lower the costs of ranching enterprises. So, in a lot of the west and in the southwest where I live and work, the profits of typical cow/calf operations typically, on average, about two percent. And so many years, it's less than that, some years, it's more that that. But the profits are very slim and so the financial sustainability of a lot of these enterprises depends on basically cutting costs wherever possible. And one of the things we're exploring is whether the use of technologies that are now commonplace in other animal agriculture systems could be adapted to rangeland livestock production systems in any way to help pump, make them more sustainable.

>> Yeah, I would, just in thinking through some of the different ways that we use technology, we can use various kinds of technical solutions to document animal movements or animal attributes. Maybe, in some cases, to manipulate animal movements or to detect landscape features or changes that help us manage animals. What are some angles on that that you have spent time on?

>> So, we invested quite a bit of time in the last 15 years to study these patterns by using store on board telemetry. So, basically using systems that record animal position or animal movement, and then downloading these data and mapping them. And understanding what's happening after the fact. What we are engaged in right now is trying to set up systems where we can monitor animal movement in close to real time. And we can basically mine the data that's provided by GPS or movement sensors through a network to the cloud on daily timescales to be able to have criteria to go in and do corrective management in close to real time, I would say. And so, the technological leap here is to acquire data in close to real time and use what we have, what we and many others, have learned through the years to process the data this is produced by these sensors and come up with diagnostics that would allow a manager to basically intervene and adjust the management in real time. So, you know, we're talking of the need to go look for a cow or two that maybe have health problems, animals that may have left the pasture, time to move animals from one pasture to the next, those sorts of things could be addressed. And we are actually testing this just north of Las Cruces here with real time animal sensors that allow us to see location, but also allow us to monitor movement intensity and these sorts of things.

>> What is the cost of that right now, and what are some ways that that helps save money?

>> The cost is, the cost of the system we're setting up, we're just sort of setting up our first system, but approximately we estimate about 70 to 80 dollars per monitored animal is what our cost is approximately right now. We, these numbers are not final. And the, we don't have a final number for the savings because, of course, that depends on many different things. But what we think is that, in the long run, the savings in terms of the miles a rancher might drive every day to check animals and/or the savings in terms of being able to intervene in time to avoid the loss of a cow should more than pay off the, or pay the cost of instrumenting animals and collecting and monitoring their movement in real time. The system we're using is not only monitoring animals, we're setting up using the same real time technology. We are setting up sensors in water drinkers and setting up rain gauges that are also able to transmit data to the cloud in real time. And so, we are hoping that these three streams of data can be, we're working on bringing them together in what we call a rancher dashboard that would allow, or basically make management somewhat more efficient in the use of time, in the use of, in this case, fuel, vehicles, that sort of thing.

>> While you were talking, I was reminded of an application that was mentioned in the rangelands article that you guys just published this month, I guess it was. The article that had Michael Millward as the lead author, "A GPS-Based Evalution of Factors Commonly Used to Adjust Cattle Stocking Rates on Extensive and Mountainous Rangelands", you mentioned the possibility of fine-tuning expectations or understanding of what kind of slopes cattle would use. And that has the potential, depending on how existing stocking rates have been developed, has the potential for expanding the number of AUMs that are considered available on private land, possibly even federal land. The example that you guys gave had a 24 percent increase in available AUMs based on actual livestock movements compared to using the rules of thumb that, you know, were developed by Holecek.

>> Yes.

>> Do you see that as having wider application in other places besides a research ranch?

>> That would be one possible application, of course. Being able to, this all depends on, of course, how many animals in the herd we could afford to monitor and, but being able to have real time data is one way of, that would allow us to map rangeland use and grazing pressure in real time as well. And then, make stocking rate decisions. So, you know, sort of similar to what you describe from, what we described in this rangelands article.

>> Making those decisions on the fly on an annual basis instead of having something that's set for 30 years?

>> Well, yes, adjusting, you know, the idea that what we found in most places is that the rule of thumb worked fairly well, but that there were some exceptions. And in the places where we did see exceptions, the difference in some cases was not trivial so, that might be an application. The way we are thinking of our system is more to inform day to day management associated with issues of distribution. On the animal side of animal health, it could be distribution as well. But of identifying animals that may be behaving abnormally because they are not well, they're ill, or during, for instance, calving, being able to monitor animals and monitor behavior of cows that are, that are fixing to calve is probably pretty valuable, especially if it's younger cows and one is sort of needing to go out and assist in any way. So, there are other applications more that we are basically thinking about more so than the annual adjustment of stocking rates, yeah.

>> One of the ones that you mentioned in the paper is the possibility of use mapping, either replacing or complementing utilization monitoring that's commonly required for both state and federal permits. You know, to what extent are there sensor technologies available now either through documenting livestock location and how much time they were going to give an area or the totally different approach of, you know, some kind of a remotely sensed solution to measuring residual compared to standing biomass before grazing? Is there anything like that out there?

>> Yes, so, the animal sensor technology that we're using could help, but it probably makes more sense to use remote sensing solutions that could be, that could be UAV based so drone based solutions or high resolution images. I was talking to somebody this afternoon that was telling me about the new constellation of micro satellites that one of Elon Musk's companies is planning to put out there that can acquire images with a 70 centimeter resolution and will basically cover an area three times a day or something like that. So, there are, for that sort of applications, remote sensing tools that are being developed that probably make more sense than deploying animal wearable sensors to answer that sort of question.

>> What other sensor technologies, if any, should be of interest to rancher or land managers in a rangeland context?

>> One of the, we are, as I mentioned earlier, using three types of sensors because what we started out on this project, we spoke to some ranchers on our advisory board and asked them, what are the kind of your question, but what are the basic things that you would like to know? And so, we were told we would like to know where our animals are. So, when we go out, check them, we can go on the dashboard, pull up the map, see where they are and drive or ride straight to them. That was the first thing we were told. The second thing we were told is, especially for southwestern ranches, we would like to know if we have problems with a drinker. So, if we have one of our water sources that the floater is not working or has gone dry, we would like to be able to detect that right away. And the third thing they told us was we asked them, would you rather a remote sensing solution to estimate forage in different pastures on your ranch or would you rather know whether you got a decent rainfall in a pasture that's far away from headquarters. And we were told, give me the rainfall. I would like to know that and I can plan on that. And so, based on this that we heard from these ranchers is that we deployed the kinds of sensors that I just mentioned to you.

>> Which of those are feasible right now?

>> Well, they're all feasible basically. The technology needed to do the real time gathering of data is what is a little bit less common in the United States and in the western United States. We are using the LoRa Wan system so the long range wide area network system that is used quite a bit in the, for internet of things applications. So, to connect sensors placed on different gadgets. And one of the advantages of this system is that it can transmit small data packets and, typically, are animal sensor data or water sensor data or rainfall, rain gauge will transmit that sort of data, but it can do that over fairly long distances. So, one gateway, one great gateway with a decent radio antenna can cover a radius of up to 10 kilometers. And so, this is the system we're testing and that, the major initial complexity is to have the network in place to be able to move data from the sensors to the cloud and from the cloud to a computer. And we are, that is what we are basically learning about right now. In Europe, I would say, they are a little bit more advanced than we are and in using these sorts of tools, even in sort of more remote pastural areas. And so, we are collaborating with colleagues from the UK as well to learn from their experiences and, hopefully, try not to make the same mistakes.

>> You have a new large AFRI cap grant titled, "Novel Strategies to Increase Sustainability of Beef Production Systems in the Western U.S." Can you tell me about that?

>> Yes, yes, absolutely. So, this, a lot of what I described with what we are calling precision technology, is that we are using is being funded by USDA NIFA within this cap grant. But the grant involves other things as well. We are looking at the use of heritage cattle genetics, we're working with Mexican criollo cattle as a way of increasing, especially for us here in the southwest, increasing the ability of ranches and ranchers to adapt to a drier and hotter climate. So, that is another big objective of this cap grant. And the third is more of a modeling objective that is looking at alternative beef supply chains in the western United States. So, as you know, we, most of the cow/calf of course happens on rangeland and I'm thinking again, in our southwestern rangelands, and then the calves will go the back ground and unfinished outside of our region, basically, to the Texas panhandle to the Ogallala region. And, of course, then will eventually go to market. That is sort of the mainstream, our mainstream supply chain. And so, this modeling exercise is trying to determine how beef connects these two regions on the one hand, and on the other hand, what are other options to supply beef to the market besides this sort of mainstream channel. So, those are the three main areas of our cap grant. And the one other thing I would just add is that, as the cap grant you know, cap stands for coordinated agriculture project. That means that it's fully integrated with extension and education. So, we are working with extension specialists and we are also working with K through 12 education NGOs and so, we are trying to maximize the flow of feedback from today's producers and consumers to the researchers and back. And from tomorrow's consumers and producers and, currently the K through 12 system to the researchers and back sort of thing.

>> Something you mentioned a while back on sensors made me think about cow weight and, you know, most animal scientists know that if you ask a rancher what his cows weigh, he'll tell you 1200 pounds. And then you put them on a scale and they're 1350, there's some advantages of having sensors. But that also made me think about this cattle breed issue. Dr. Derek Bailey told me that I should ask you about criollo cattle and see if I could get you to stop talking after a couple of hours. I'm interested in what that research looks like. In particular, it seems like in the desert of southwest something like that would be a more profitable fit than a 1300-pound Simmental or even and English cross that's significantly lighter than that. I think I saw the word somewhere raramuri criollo, how do you pronounce that and what are they?

>> Yeah so, that is raramuri criollo and they are a type, a biotype of criollo cattle from the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua Mexico. And we, the USDA ARS Jornada Experimental Range introduced those and started the research on these type of animals, oh probably, 15, 16 years ago. And the reasoning was, and still is, that these are cattle that, of course, who were brought to the Americas by the conquistadors, the Spanish conquistadors, these were animals originally from Spain, from southern Spain and with influence of African Bos Taurus breeds as well. Anyhow, they sprayed across the Americas from North America all the way down to Patagonia. And this specific biotype that we are working with called raramuri is named after the Tarahumara people of the Copper Canyon that are the people that have raised these animals for several hundreds of years with kind of minimum husbandry, so minimum inputs. And so, these animals are highly adaptive to harsh environments and there, as probably Dr. Bailey mentioned these are smaller cows, probably weighing about 800 pounds. And one of the problems of trying to use them in a sort of a typical beef production system is that the calves that weaning are very light. And so, there is really very little market in the beef sector for weaned criollo calves. So, one of the things we're exploring in our cap project is something that people in northern Mexico have been doing for a long time. And that is, due to kind of a terminal cross, crossbreeding our criollo cows with an improved beef breed bull and then getting calves that grow faster and reach reasonable weaning weights and can be sold at weaning. And so, this is one kind of production model that the project sees as, well, we want to basically see if it is viable or not. And so, the idea is that we will look at these crossbred calves from birth all the way through slaughter. So, sort of from the ranch to rail, basically. And we'll compare those to calves of improved commercial breeds that are being raised right along them in the same conditions themselves. So, that's kind of where we're at. The reason we like this model is because we think, well, you would have a herd of mother cows, of criollo mother cows, that we know use the landscape very differently. So, a lot of the work we've done with store on board sensors in the past suggest that the grazing distribution patterns and the way to behave is quite different. It appears that their diets are somewhat different to commercial beef breeds such as the ones you mentioned that were bred and selected to do well in areas of France or Great Britain. And that, you know, they can do very well in the desert obviously, but with higher levels of inputs. And so, we're trying to document all the economics of all of this as well to be able to, at the end of the day, evaluate what the tradeoffs are. And so, it might save one side and might not gain as much on the other. So, that is one of the things we're trying to determine. And you're right that I went on and on there, I'm sorry to.

>> [Laughter] That's what I was hoping for. Yeah, I would expect that the first question from a commercial rancher, you know, regarding using these animals for breeding stock is, you know, what is the, are they still going to hand a low choice carcass and do well in a feed lot. But I'm aware of, just anecdotally, of a couple examples in Washington State where somebody has Corriente cows that are being bred to a low birth weight angus bull and those calves did pretty well and performed quite well in a feed lot and then on the rail. How are the criollos different from Corrientes? Are the Corrientes also Mexican cattle but that came from Spain?

>> Their origin is exactly the same, but they were selected for different purposes. So, a lot of the corriente cattle that currently come from Mexico and that are more common in the lower areas and more desert areas of Chihuahua are cattle that were bred for sports cattle. And so, sport steers for rodeo. So, these are animals that were obviously selected for small size and low weights, quick animals that could run. The Tarahumara, the animals that they've raised for many years were selected to be double purpose, dual purpose animals. So, they use them, they milk them and they use them, the calves, of course, for meat, for beef as well. So, they tend to be larger than the typical corriente cattle. But genetic origin is the same. And one important thing about the criollo cattle in general, or I think this is true throughout the Americas is that there's a huge amount of genetic variability. So, you might start off with a corriente herd, but you probably have enough genetic variability that, through time, you could end up with a herd that is more suited for beef production. But the logic here was that this specific biotype, though very similar to the corriente, is somewhat bigger and would lend itself better to beef production.

>> I've heard that some of the larger European breeds were developed as beasts of burden which is sort of compatible with being a meat animal as opposed to, well you said, dual purpose, I was thinking meat and labor, rather than meat and milk. But I suppose milk makes quite a bit of sense. In Mexico, were any of these cattle used as work animals?

>> Yes, I admitted to say that actually the, my understanding is that the Tarahumara people still today use some of these animals for draft. And so, they will use them for, you know, plowing a field and doing that sort of things as well. The one interesting thing that I'd just add here, and this, I haven't seen this in person, but colleagues that were up there initially and that formed this first initial herd were telling me, and that you see in the herd of animals that we work with over here, is that these were extremely tame animals. So, typically one sees a criollo cow with intimidating horns and just wonders, I wonder what it is to get one of these into a chute and try to work with it, you know. And they're amazingly, amazingly easy to work with. And so, colleagues that put together this initial herd and purchased these animals up in Copper Canyon would tell us that some of these cows were treated as almost pets. And would even try to walk into some of these people's homes so they were around the home there, they'd milk them and so on and so forth. And so, anyhow I don't know why I got off on this tangent, but it has to do with being able to milk an animal, it needs to be, of course, fairly tame. And use it for draft as well.

>> Yeah, the origins of the cattle that we use in this country and others is not something that I've thought about very much. I've read a bit about Bali cattle in the, you know, in southeast Asia and on some of the islands around Indonesia. And they're supposedly descended from Banteng cattle which is a differen genous than either Bali, you know, it's a different genous. It's not Bos indicus or Bos Taurus, I think they call them bibous or bebous. Do you know anything about some of these other indigenous breeds of cattle? It seems like everything in the new world came from somewhere across the Atlantic. Are there any, is that the case?

>> My very short answer to your question is that I know very little about this. And, but what I will say and, of course, this takes me back to the criollo, but in a minute, I'll explain why this makes sense. And that is that one of the things we think about some of these heritage breeds is that they might have a, because they use the landscape differently and because their diet selection patterns appear to be slightly different that they, their impact on the landscape might be somewhat different. And so, this takes me back, there's a study that was published recently in Germany actually using highland cattle which, you know, are not as different as the southeast Asian kinds of cattle that you were talking about, but that would be a type of heritage animal within the European breed context. And monitored these animals, monitored their impact on the composition of grasslands, different places throughout Germany. And consistently found differences between pastures that were regularly grazed by highland cattle than the pastures grazed by, you know, improved commercial cattle. And the common denominator in that case was increased diversity in the pastures that were grazed by highland animals. And we have never measured that with the specific kind of the criollos or the specific kind of heritage cattle we're using over here. But that is something we are hoping to begin to document with this project. And have actually set up a network of studies that we hope will go way beyond the cap grant to try to figure out whether this is true of our criollo cattle or not.

>> Is there a place where people can go to learn more about your work, if they're interested in learning more about some of these sensor technologies or heritage breeds?

>> Yes, absolutely. The cap project we are currently conducting has a website and if you google sustainable southwest beef, you should be able to find the url for our site. And there is information that is being added to this website all the time. This is a large group of collaborators in New Mexico, California, Utah, South Dakota, Texas, and other places and a lot of interesting stuff happening. [Background Music] So, that would be the best place to go.

>> Okay. We will include that project website in the share notes for the episode when it releases. Dr. Cibils, thank you very much for your time. It's been a pleasure.

>> Thank you, Tip, thanks for the opportunity. I enjoyed it.

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